Governor pushes education reform proposals to secure federal grant

Win or lose in a competition for millions of federal dollars to improve schools, Washington state will be well served by its education reform efforts, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday.

The Legislature is considering a bill that proposes a series of changes aimed at better tracking of student achievement, improving poor performing schools and evaluating teachers and principals. Such changes would boost the state’s chances of being awarded “Race to the Top” money.

By a 41-5 vote, the state Senate passed its bill Feb. 11; the House Education Committee discussed the legislation on Wednesday.

Forty states have already submitted applications for a chunk of more than $4.5 billion in “Race to the Top” dollars, a federal initiative that pushes for innovation in public schools.

Washington plans to submit its proposal later this year. It could receive between $150 million and $250 million.

The governor said the money would be helpful, but Washington won’t undermine its best interests to have a better shot.

“We are going to be doing everything we can to qualify, but what we are doing is right for Washington,” Gregoire said.

For instance, she said, Washington won’t push for charter schools, which are public schools paid for with tax dollars but run by private organizations that have more leeway in how they operate and fewer regulations to follow. Washington’s voters have rejected charter school ballot measures three times.

Randy Dorn, the state superintendent of public instruction, has estimated the state could lose 30 points in the 500-point application federal process because it won’t offer charter schools.

“Whether or not we get the money, we do feel the reforms in the bill will help students of this state,” said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state superintendent of public education.

The proposal has met some resistance, including those who say it should have included charter schools, merit pay and better ways of weeding out bad teachers more quickly.

Among other things, the education reform bill would extend the probationary period of teachers from two years to three; approve a new school accountability plan from the state Board of Education and set new evaluation criteria for teachers and principals, dividing them into four levels of effectiveness instead of two.

Gregoire said the state’s proposal will push for more programs that include help from the private sector and it will emphasize science, technology, engineering and math, which are important in producing jobs for the future.

Key criteria in the competition are:

  • A set of common academic standards that can be compared beyond the state;

    A data collection system that tracks growth in student learning and links student learning to effective instructional practices;

    Effective strategies to turn around the lowest-performing schools;

    A system that rewards top teachers and replaces weak ones.

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